Press Cuts: 12–Media Freedom Round-Up

Hong Kong | Belarus | India | Nigeria

Hong Kong

Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy newspaper, was forced to shut down its operations on June 23, following the latest raid by Beijing in which around 500 police officers entered the tabloid’s office, arrested five executives of the newspaper over “concerns of national security”, and froze company assets. 

The Hong Kong police alleged that articles dating back to 2019 may have breached the security law – a controversial law pushed through by China last year – and seized journalistic materials. 

Jimmy Lai, the owner of Apple Daily, was earlier arrested by security forces during a raid that happened in 2020. Lai was sentenced to 14 months imprisonment for participating in pro-democractic protests. 

The raid was condemned by international press freedom groups and the UN. 

Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Yamini Mishra said that Hong Kong is ramping up crackdown on press freedom on the pretext of “national security.”

“It is farcical for the authorities to suggest that the critical media articles that apparently prompted today’s raid have met this threshold, while pretending to use international law as their justification. Once again, ‘national security’ is being used as a catch-all to silence critics in Hong Kong,” said Mishra.

The Committee to Protect Journalists announced that Jimmy Lai will be honored with the 2021 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award for being a “press freedom warrior.”

Also read:

Hong Kong Bids Emotional Farewell to Newspaper Shut by Beijing 

Apple Daily | In the line of fire (might be under paywall)

Belarus

The Belarusian government, on May 23, arranged for the diversion of a Lithuania-bound flight to arrest Roman Protasevich, a 26-year old dissident activist. The following day, Protasevich appeared in a video and confessed to organizing mass riots in Minsk, the capital city of Belarus. 

Protasevich is the founder and former editor of Nexta, a social media channel that was crucial in leading protests against Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime. 

The aerial abduction of Protasevich warranted wide-spread outrage from political leaders, United Nations, and European Commission. 

“The manner, through threat of military force, in which Mr. Protasevich was abducted from the jurisdiction of another State and brought within that of Belarus, was tantamount to an extraordinary rendition”, said Rupert Colville, spokesperson of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

According to news reports, Belarus has been intensifying press freedom attacks by blocking news websites and passing stifling legislative amendments. A Voice of America report said that more than 500 journalists have been arrested since August 2020 when President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory and the opposition leader was forced to flee.  

Also read:

The aerial abduction of Roman Protasevich in Belarus

3 Reasons Why The Arrest Of A Journalist By Belarus Is Troubling 

Journalists and media freedom under attack in Lukashenko’s Belarus 

India

The Uttar Pradesh police has booked social media platform Twitter, Congress politicians, digital news publication The Wire, and journalists Mohammed Zubair of Alt News, Saba Naqvi, Rana Ayyub over tweets of a viral video showing a group of men assaulting an elderly Muslim man. 

The police concluded that the incident in the video was not motivated by religion and hence the tweets amounted to spreading of hate and communal disturbance. 

The move has been criticised by journalists and free speech organisations. Reports allege that the police “selectively targeted” specific individuals although hundreds of social media users and news publications had shared the video. 

In this case, Twitter has been considered “publisher” as it has still not agreed to comply with the IT Rules, hence losing its status as an “intermediary.”

The Editors Guild of India said that it has noted the “discriminatory, targeted” FIRs and is “deeply concerned by the UP Police’s track record of filing FIRs against journalists to deter them from reporting serious incidents without fear of reprisals.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists demanded that the charges against journalists and the news website be dropped.

 “The Indian authorities singling out journalists, some of whom are known for critical coverage of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, for sharing and commenting on a video looks suspiciously like selective law enforcement and amounts to a serious attack on press freedom,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia Program Coordinator.  

Also read:

They Shared a Video of a Muslim Man Being Attacked in India. Now They’re Being Investigated by Police 

Govt vs Twitter: Will courts decide who champions freedom of expression? 

Nigeria

Two days after Twitter removed a tweet by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, the government issued directives to telecom companies to suspend the social media platform indefinitely. 

The tweet by Buhari that threatened to punish regional secessionists in the West African country was widely perceived to be offensive. 

Information Minister Lai Mohammed said that the government had acted because of “the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.”

Nigeria’s attorney general ordered immediate prosecution of those who break rules banning Twitter. 

A local rights group called the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), along with 176 other Nigerians, challenged the ban in court, which restrained the government from “unlawfully” prosecuting people from using Twitter while it is considering legal actions to reverse the ban. 

Rights groups condemned the action and demanded the reversal of suspension. The International Press Institute said that the ban seriously undermines the public’s right to share and receive news and information. 

Gill Atkinson, the British Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria, wrote in a tweet on Saturday that “all Nigerians have the right to freedom of speech and the responsibility not to misuse that right”.

Also read:

Nigeria’s Twitter ban: The people risking arrest to tweet 

3 things to know about Nigeria’s Twitter ban

(Compiled and written by Geetha Srimathi Sreenivasan)

#Explained – Pakistan’s Media Development Authority Ordinance 2021

The Pakistani government recently proposed the Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) Ordinance 2021 that allows formation of a media regulatory body for all mediums – print, broadcast, and digital. The ordinance calls for repealing all existing media legislatures and merging them under one authority, which proposes nominating a bureaucrat to head the PMDA. 

The proposed law has come under criticism by the media fraternity for attempting to centralise media regulation. The ordinance is introduced at a time when Pakistan has already been cracking the whip on journalists and vloggers who speak against the Imran Khan-led government and the military. 

Watch: #Explained – Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) Ordinance 2021

What is the PMDA and what are its functions?

The PMDA ordinance 2021 is a legislation that “aims to create an independent, efficient, effective, and transparent institution to regulate all forms of media and bring them under a single and converged regulator and statutory authority.” In addition to news media, the authority is also set to monitor films and over-the-top content platforms as well. 

The ordinance proposes to repeal all current media-related laws, including the Press Council Ordinance, 2002, the Press, Newspapers, News Agencies and Books Registration Ordinance, 2002, the Newspaper Employees, (Conditions of Service Act), 1973, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance, 2002, as amended by the Pemra Amendment Act, 2007, and the Motion Pictures Ordinance, 1979.

The PDMA will primarily grant and renew licenses or registration certificates for electronic, print, digital media services and film services. Furthermore, it will investigate complaints and claims made “against licensees arising out of alleged contraventions of the provisions of the Ordinance.”

The authority will also devise a Code of Conduct for programmes and advertisements for compliance. As per the draft, the government could issue directives to the authority on matters of policy and such directives will be binding on the authority.

Why is the ordinance being opposed?

Media unions have pointed out certain high-handed aspects of the proposed ordinance called it a “martian law.” It has also been agreed among media practitioners that the ordinance ignores the fact that print, digital and electronic media are separate entities each with their own defined features and respective regulatory laws.

The PMDA will have the power, without providing a show cause notice, to prohibit any person working in any medium from making available anything online that “is known to be false or baseless” or “incites violence or hatred or any action prejudicial to maintaining law and order.” 

The draft mentions that the authority may also call for any information, audited financial statements, or any other relevant documents and can, without notice, “by reason of necessity in the public interest” seize the equipment of a media station or seal its premises.

The draft also says that any licensee who violates any provision of the ordinance “shall be guilty of offence punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with a fine which may extend up to twenty-five million rupees or with both.”

The fines, raids, and the arbitrary power to revoke licenses of media houses are among the significant concerns observed by the media fraternity. 

Who has raised concerns about the ordinance?

Pakistan’s media organisations – including editors, broadcasters, news directors – have rejected the proposed PMDA ordinance, calling it an “unconstitutional and draconian law.” All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA), Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE),  Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors (AEMEND) rejected the law and said that the it was intended to obstruct media freedom and take control of the media. 

“The proposed law is draconian in scope and devastating in its impact on the constitutional principles and guarantees for freedom of expression, media freedoms, and the right to information as well as the profession of journalism,” said PFUJ, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) said in a joint statement. 

The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of mediapersons, said to Prime Minister Imran Khan in an open letter, “Your excellency, we urge you to reconsider the decision of the government to promulgate the PMDA ordinance and withdraw it immediately, as it will have a devastating impact on a free media in a democracy that Pakistan promises to be.” 

How has the Pakistani government responded to criticism against the PMDA ordinance 2021?

Following outcry over the proposed ordinance from journalists, activists, and the opposition, the federal government constituted a committee to ‘liaise’ the matters of the PDMA with stakeholders.

In a notification issued on June 2, the ministry said State Minister for Information and Broadcasting Farrukh Habib would head the committee that would comprise three other members – Press Information Department Director General (DG) Sohail Ali Khan, Internal Publicity DG Manzoor Ali Memon and Directorate of Electronic Media & Publications (DEMP) Deputy Director Mahar un Nisa.

“The competent authority has approved the constitution of a committee to liaise and discuss Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) with stakeholders,” said the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

Also read:

Pakistan’s Press Enters a Dark Era

Pakistan’s draconian proposed press law stirs controversy

Opinion: Pakistan is pursuing an unrelenting assault on journalism